When I was in elementary school, I loved to romp in the swampy woodlands behind my neighborhood. During winter, my friends and I would fearlessly traverse over icy leaves and frozen mud, taking shortcuts to favorite destinations, like the local reservoir. As the upland woods and meadows continued to lay dormant, these forested wetlands were the earliest places to come back to life.
Before the first robin, another, less adored creature heralds the coming of spring. As a kid playing in the woods, I knew spring was just around the corner by the emergence of the odd, skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus. One of the first plants to surface, skunk cabbage appears as early as February, often popping through snow. In fact, the respiration from a skunk cabbage often creates enough heat to melt snow surrounding the plant.
Skunk cabbage is a low-growing herbaceous plant found in swamps, wet woods and stream borders. The common name comes from the plant's large, cabbage-like leaves. The name also alludes to the strong, fetid smell emitted when certain parts of the plant are touched or bruised. Some describe the smell as resembling the smell of skunk. It has also been described as musky, garlicky or similar to decaying flesh. The species name for skunk cabbage, the Latin word, foetidus, means "to stink."
Chemicals in the plant produce the unpleasant odor. Skatole is a crystalline compound that has a feces-like smell and cadaverine is an organic compound produced by decomposing bacteria. It is believed that the plant mimics this putrid smell to attract insects that specialize in scavenging dead and fecal matter. The insects, lured by the odor, help to pollinate the plant.
Skunk cabbage looks as odd as its smells. A purple-streaked hood, known as a spathe, wraps around and over the knob-shaped flower cluster known as a spadix. The spathe pokes through the ground in February. By March or April, flesh-colored flowers appear on the spadix. The respiration of the spadix warms the surrounding air and the enveloping spathe helps to insulate the plant, creating a microclimate of constant warmth.
The flowers develop female parts first, beginning at the top of the spadix. By the time female flowers emerge at the bottom of the spadix, males parts have developed at the top.
An opening of the spathe allows some of spring's earliest flying insects, including flies and beetles, to enter and pollinate the plant. Because it is such an early flowering plant, skunk cabbage may be one of the first pollen sources for honey bees.
After pollination, the spadix bends toward the ground and the spathe disintegrates. Large, rolled-up leaves emerge on thick stalks. After unrolling, these green leaves continue to grow, often becoming 2 feet long by summer. The spadix turns black and becomes a compound fruit. The large seeds are eaten by wood ducks and game birds such as pheasant, grouse and bobwhite quail.
Skunk cabbage originated in Asia. Like humans, the plant migrated to North America by a land bridge that once existed between Siberia and Alaska. This common wetland plant is now found from southern Canada, through the northeast United States, south to Georgia and west to Iowa.
Another, more familiar plant is also found in damp woods and swamps. Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, appears as early as March. It, too, sports a purple-and-green mottled spathe (the pulpit) enveloping a club-shaped spadix (the Jack) of male and female flowers. The spathe is vase-shaped and tapering to a delicate point. Flowering occurs later than skunk cabbage, usually March through June. The fruit, a cluster of red berries on the spadix, appears late in the summer through fall and is relished by pheasant, turkey and wood thrush. Jack-in-the-pulpit ranges from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Minnesota and south to Florida and eastern Texas.
Both plants, members of the arum family of plants, contain needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate that produce a burning sensation if the plant parts are eaten raw. Drying eliminates this unpleasant characteristic. Dried skunk cabbage leaves can be added to soups and stews, and the roots can be ground into flour. Native Americans gathered the fleshy taproots of Jack-in-the-pulpit as a vegetable.
As a child, whenever I spied these odd-shaped plants peaking out of the ground, I knew that spring was not far behind. The frozen shortcuts that I had become accustomed to throughout the winter would soon be gone. Temperatures would steadily climb, causing a gradual thaw. The ground would turn even soggier with April rains. I would no longer be able to traverse these wetlands, as the weight of my 12 years would surely cause me to sink at least ankle-deep in muck.
Soon I would have to hike the longer trails, bypassing the swamps. Soon I would be confined to the higher grounds of spring.